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States are making college free: why that won’t ensure students are prepared for the economy of tomorrow

We need to focus on creating more college graduates, not just creating more college students.

Many of us have seen or heard various statistics regarding the number of college graduates our country needs to fulfill its anticipated jobs. One such study from the Georgetown Public Policy Institute estimates that by 2020 over 65 percent of American jobs will require a postsecondary degree or formal credential. However, current estimates suggest that only 47 percent of people will earn at least an associate’s degree by 2020. And the divide is much starker when looking at people from lower-income families, with only 15 percent earning a degree within six years of entering college.

Knowing we are facing a huge shortfall, many politicians and policy-makers have tried to solve this by making it easier for students to attend college.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has been particularly vocal on college access as he recently introduced a bill called the College for All Act, which eliminates tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities for students from families that make up to $125,000 per year.

New York also recently passed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tuition free plan as part of the state budget that will provide free college at New York’s public universities and colleges for all low- and middle-class students from families earning less than $100,000 a year.

Earlier this year, Tennessee legislature expanded the Tennessee Promise program to provide free community college or technical school tuition. And this month, Rhode Island followed suit by making community college free for all students regardless of income.

These are laudable programs that we should all applaud and can serve to inspire thinking and discussion. But getting to college only addresses one aspect of the equation.

It’s true that college access continues to be a major hurdle for many students, especially those who are from lower-income families. But the fact is that college success is much more important. We need to focus on creating more college graduates, not just creating more college students.

However well intentioned, the access only approach isn’t helping our students. Consider these facts: Only 53 percent of students starting college in 2009 graduated within six years and only 15 percent of high school sophomores from households in the lowest income quartile earned a bachelor’s degree within eight years.

We can make real and lasting impacts in America by not only providing students with the means to go to college, but by also equipping them with the best tools and long-term support to succeed once they get there.

A 15 percent return for lower-income students and a 53 percent return for all students are not commensurate with the size of the tuition plans currently being discussed and implemented.

At the Kauffman Foundation, we’ve spent significant effort, time and resources to help students succeed at every stage of their educational journey. But our efforts to help students succeed in college is not just an act of charity, it is an investment. And the return on that investment is college completion and a sufficiently educated workforce.

Our education programs stem from three pillars of thought:

  • Beginning college preparation early and thinking about “education, work, and life after high school” as an approaching and unavoidable circumstance.
  • Reducing barriers to access, which is often financial, but just as important is to remove barriers to successful completion, which involves providing access to on-campus supports, remote on-demand guidance, and advising students as they explore higher education options to ensure they find the right “fit.”
  • Aligning schools, students, parents, and local community stakeholders to the goal of completion. This means moving the conversation beyond access and holding ourselves accountable for success.

The Kauffman Foundation’s three-pillar approach has led to programming where we are seeing positive trends that translate to student success rates that outshine national standards. One example is the Kauffman Scholars program where, beginning in seventh grade, low-income and minority students receive extensive financial and academic support from a whole host of mentors including program leaders, coaches, and collegiate, community, and corporate partners until they graduate from college.

The results speak for themselves: The Kauffman Scholars program anticipates a 65 percent college graduation rate (well above the national average for similar students).

Taking our lessons learned from the Kauffman Scholars program we worked together with our community and launched a newly designed Kansas City Scholars program. This next generation of scholarship awards not only brings the program to scale by extending scholarship opportunities to thousands of low- and moderate-income students and adults, it also emphasizes completion support.

KC Scholars awardees will receive support services focused on successful college enrollment as well as persistence and completion support once enrolled in college. In addition, they can use their scholarships only at designated institutions in the partner network who are also committed to supporting students on campus toward the goal of completion.

We expect this approach will yield a completion rate of 75 percent.

After nearly 30 years of providing scholarships to students in need, we’ve learned that money is only part of the story. Support for students can’t end once they get into college.

We need graduates who will become part of the life and work of our communities, creating employees, entrepreneurs and community leaders that will build our country’s future. Their future is our future and we must remain engaged until the degree is handed over as well.

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